5. Nicolas Jacques Pelletier: The French Highwayman who was the first person executed by Guillotine.
In November 1791, Frenchman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier committed his last crime, a highway robbery in Paris. Pelletier and his gang waylaid a traveler along the Rue Bourbon-Villeneuve and robbed and murdered him. The crime was public, and locals quickly raised the hue and cry was quickly raised. Pelletier’s accomplices escaped. However, Pelletier was captured, tried and condemned to die – a sentence that was ratified by three separate courts. Pelletier’s punishment was due to be carried out on December 31, 1791. However, it was delayed because the newly appointed National Assembly was looking for a quick, clean method of execution applicable to rich and poor alike.
So, while Pelletier spent three months anticipating his execution, surgeon Antoine Louison oversaw the construction of the first guillotine in Strasburg. The official executioner, Sanson then tested the machine, using live animals before moving onto human corpses. On March 23, 1792, the National Assembly signed off the guillotine and on April 25, 1792, Pelletier became its first victim. A large crowd had assembled, curious to see what manner of death the ominous contraption set up on the scaffold could inflict. Sadly, it was less spectacular than they hoped. Pelletier was quickly despatched, immediately rousing several disappointed members of the crowd to call out “Give me back my wooden gallows,”
4. George Davenport: The Leicestershire Highwayman who cheated the Hangman.
When frame knitter George Davenport turned to a life of crime, he preferred to remain in his home county of Leicestershire rather than head for the bright lights of London. After cutting his teeth on fraud and deserting from 40 army regiments, Davenport joined the army properly and fought in the American war of Independence. However, once his army career was over, he returned home to Wigston and took to the roads of Leicestershire. Here, Davenport became something of a local hero as he was known to prey only on the wealthy and, like Robin Hood, shared some of his ill-gotten gains with the local poor.
No one would betray George Davenport- although Davenport himself often courted capture. One evening, he was drinking in an inn when he saw a poster offering a reward for his arrest.“I am George Davenport, catch me if you can”he announced to the astounded drinkers, hightailing it off the premises before anyone could follow. In August 1797, Davenport was finally captured and sentenced to hang at Red Hill Gallows. However, he had to have the last laugh. Hangmen could claim any of the possessions of the executed criminal found“outside the shroud”. So, to cheat the hangman of his due, Davenport went to his death wearing his shroud over his clothing.
3. Robert Snooks: The Last Person in England Hanged for Highway Robbery
By the early nineteenth century, highway robbery began to die. However, some still tried their luck on the road- probably because if caught, offenders were more likely to be transported than hung. The last man executed for highway robbery was James ‘Robber“ or “Robert‘Snook, who met his end on March 11, 1802, on desolate Boxmoor Common in Hertfordshire. On May 10, 1801, Snook stole six leather bags of letters and bank and promissory notes from the mail coach. Theft of the post was a serious offense because it threatened “the commercial interests to the country.”Sothe Postmaster General added a £200 reward to the standard £100 offered by the Parliament for the apprehension of highwaymen.
It was a broken saddle girth left behind at the scene of the crime that several people had seen Snook trying to mend earlier that day, that identified Snook as the thief. He was captured during another robbery, and convicted because he used one of the stolen banknotes to purchase some cloth. Snook was sentenced to hang. He met his end bravely. While taking his final drink at a local pub, he joked with spectators hurrying to see him die “Its no good hurrying-they can’t start the fun until I get there.”
2. Michael Martin aka Captain Lightfoot, The Last New England Highwayman
In 1816, twenty-year-old Michael Martin of Conahy, County Kilkenny had a chance encounter that changed his life. Martin met a man he thought was an Anglican vicar in a pub. The pair got drunk together and the ‘vicar‘ coaxed Martin‘s life story from him. The next morning, the vicar revealed himself to be none other than John Doherty, aka Captain Thunderbolt, Ireland’s most famous highwayman. Doherty was impressed by Martin’s exploits and his apparent resourcefulness and offered to take the young man under his wing. So Martin adopted the name “Captain Lightfoot” and took to the road with Doherty.
However, after three years there was nowhere left to hide. In 1819, the pair separated, and Martin boarded a ship for a new life in America. Martin tried to turn over a new leaf. However, when he found himself in debt, Captain Lightfoot returned to the road. Lightfoot’s enjoyed many American adventures, including escaping with his life from twenty Native American braves after he robbed their chief. He even reset his own dislocated his shoulder in a barn using his cravat and suspender while fleeing a mob after his final robbery in Medway. However, on this occasion, he was caught and in December 1821 became the last man to hang for highway robbery in New England.
1. ‘Mad’ Dan Morgan: The Unstable Australian Bushranger who held up landlords and helped their employees.
“Bushrangers” were the highway robbers of the Australian outback and Mad Dan Morgan was one of the most notorious. In 1860, Morgan absconding from a ticket of leave after being released early from a twelve-year sentence for highway robbery. He headed into the bush and began work as a station hand. However, Morgan just couldn’t stick at honest work. In August 1860, he stole a horse from his employers and escaped into western New South Wales where he began his criminal career in earnest, robbing bush stations and coaches.
By 1864, Morgan had a £1000 price on his head for the murders of Henry Baylis, a police magistrate, police Sergeant, David Maginnity and overseer John Mclean. However, Morgan‘s victims were usually exploitative landowners. Morgan delighted in forcing them to make amends to their workers. However, he was also erratic and unstable, and just as likely to kill his victims on a whim as he was to toy with them. It was this behavior that earned him the name “Mad Dan”. Mad Dan‘s reign of terror ended in 1865 when he was shot from behind while fleeing a botched robbery at the Peechelba Station near Wangaratta, Victoria. After his death, ghoulish souvenir hunters harvested his characteristic long black locks and beard.